marisa morby

Design & Nature Reimagined: Look to the birds

As climate change continues to impact our weather, we will start seeing more frequent and more severe weather events and natural disasters. More and increasingly destructive tornadoes. More violent hurricanes. More fires. More severe cold snaps. More deadly heat waves. More... pandemics (sorry to throw that one in there but a warming ecosystem is bound to release new pathogens).

I often talk about the future and climate change mitigation. How might we change something going forward to reduce or reverse climate change? But an important part of climate justice requires a realistic view. And that view must include adaptation. How might we reimagine our relationship with nature in order to adapt to a changing climate? And, surprisingly, this is where we can look to the birds.

Migrating birds are able to avoid bad weather

Birds typically migrate at night, and during migration season, anywhere between 500 - 600 million birds are flying toward their final destination. They fly at night to take advantage of a more stable atmosphere. But in addition to being able to navigate at night and find their way over hundreds of thousands of miles. The prevailing theory right now is that birds may actually be able to see Earth's magnetic field as a spot in their vision, which moves with them as they turn their head. They can do this, plus they're also able to avoid bad weather, which makes it easier for scientists to map the migration pattern for birds.

We are able to track the birds using radar

Once scientists have mapped the potential path, they're also able to track birds using radar. The software they're using for this is called Birdcast. By watching past data about how birds migrate, they've been able to create predictive models that predict when birds will start migrating about a week in advance.

Additionally, they're able to create predictions on the paths and patterns birds will take to get to their final destination. In order to do that, they take past migration data and map that against current weather predictions to get an idea of the path birds might take. That helps with conservation because scientists have a better idea when birds will be traveling over certain areas and can alert cities to turn their lights low or turn them off.

And we can learn from veerie birds, who are great predictors of severe weather

Being able to forecast weather does help us predict severe weather in advance. But we can also look to the birds in order to forecast large storms; especially storms we're not good at predicting right now. Enter the Veery bird. These adorable little tan and white birds may be able to predict hurricanes better than our current computing capabilities. By studying the breeding patterns of Veeries, scientist Christopher Heckscher found that in a year where there will be bad hurricanes, these birds stop breeding sooner in the year. That means that by paying closer attention to the animals around us, we may have a way to predict a bad hurricane season months in advance. Veery birds were able to recognize by summer that there was going to be rough weather, and therefore stopped breeding in order to put the rest of their resources into preparing for migration. In fact, birds may be more able to identify and predict harsh weather before it hits than we give them credit for. A few years ago, golden-winged warblers were seen taking an extremely long way around their normal path the migration radar. Soon after they diverted south, a huge tornado hit the midwest, which is normally the path the birds would have taken.. Scientists now think that it's possible the birds were able to tell that the tornado was forming through infrasound, which is a low frequency noise emitted by storms. Humans can't hear it, but birds can. We need more data from more migrations to see if the Veery behavior and Warbler behavior continues to track against these theories of predicting severe weather. But for now, paying closer attention to the birds and understanding how they predict severe weather may help us figure out how to more accurately predict severe weather seasons ourselves.

Now that you've read through, look at this cute little veery singing their little heart out.

A little veery singing in the morning sun.

Photo by Lang Elliot who also captures nature sounds on Music of Nature.